Tuesday, 20 June 2017

Thought for the day: The role of the press

I found this quotation in the autobiography of Matthew Parris; "Times" columnist, gay rights campaigner and former Conservative M.P.; concerning the behaviour of the press in political battles :-

"All the newspaper editors ever do is  wait until the battle is over, then come down from the hills and bayonet the wounded"

I think this is well illustrated in the conduct of the press after last year's referendum and the recent general election - although the bayoneting of Jeremy Corbyn proved to be premature.

Monday, 12 June 2017

Martin Luther and the start of the Reformation

The Protestant Reformation is traditionally said to have begun at the end of October 1517 when Martin Luther nailed his “95 Theses” against the sale of Indulgencies to the church door at Wittenberg in eastern Germany. The questions that emerge from this and what followed are: why did Luther do this, and why was he not crushed as previous would-be reformers had been? Why was Charles V, the Holy Roman Emperor, the ruler of Germany, unable to stop him?
   Luther was born in 1483 and had become an Augustinian friar in 1505. He had become increasingly obsessed with a sense of his own sinfulness, and his inability to achieve any sense of salvation by his own efforts or through the traditional rituals of the church. He had visited Rome and been disgusted by the luxury and cynicism he saw there.
   Luther’s ruling prince, Frederick the Wise, Elector of Saxony, was a pious man who owned a famous collection of holy relics. He had endowed a university at Wittenberg in 1502 and appointed Luther as a lecturer in theology. He remained a cautious supporter of Luther until his death in 1525, when he was succeeded by his nephew, John Frederick, an enthusiastic Lutheran.
   Indulgencies were documents from the Papacy which guaranteed reduction of penance in Purgatory, either for the buyer or for a deceased relative. Many theologians had their doubts about them, especially when they were being hawked in high-pressure salesmanship as a blatant fundraising measure, as was being done by certain Dominican friars in Germany in 1517. Luther’s protest therefore sparked a response, and he defended his actions in debates with other clerics. But Luther went further than this. Over the next few years he wrote such pamphlets as “An Address to the Christian Nobility of the German Nation” (written in German, for a wide circulation), and “The Babylonish Captivity of the Church” (written in Latin, for the clergy). He denounced the authority of the Pope and the doctrine of the Mass. He also denounced the necessity for clerical celibacy, and himself later married a former nun. When he was excommunicated by a Papal Bull in 1520 he publicly burned the document. Charles considered things were getting out of control and decided to intervene.

Charles, or Carlos, or Karl; whatever we want to call him; was born in 1500 in Ghent, in what is now Belgium. His paternal grandfather was the Maximilian, the head of the great Habsburg family, who bore the title of Holy Roman Emperor, and his grandmother was heiress to the lands of the Duchy of Burgundy. Through them, Charles inherited the Netherlands and the lands of the modern state of Austria. But Charles’s mother was the daughter of King Ferdinand and Queen Isabella of Spain, and through her Charles inherited not only Spain itself but also Sardinia, Naples and Sicily, and the lands beyond the Atlantic which Spanish explorers were conquering. (Magellan’s voyage round the world, financed with Spanish money, set sail in 1519; Cortez destroyed the Aztecs of Mexico in 1522, and Pizarro inflicted the same fate on the Incas of Peru in 1533) Such a vast inheritance had not been seen since the days of the Roman Empire.
   Charles never knew his parents, who left for Spain soon after he was born. His father died in 1506 and his mother, Joanna, was certified as insane; some said unjustly. Charles was brought up by Margaret, the dowager Duchess of Burgundy, who was the sister of Kings Edward IV and Richard III of England, and then after her death by his aunt, Margaret of Austria. His first language was French, but at the age of 17 he was sent to Spain to be crowned as King. He was a rather dour young man compared with his glamorous contemporaries Francis I of France and Henry VIII of England; not particularly talented, but conscientious and hardworking.

   The Emperor Maximilian, who had never shown much interest in his grandson, died in 1519, leaving the Imperial throne vacant. Charles was determined to succeed his grandfather, but that was by no means guaranteed, for the Imperial title was bestowed by election.
   The Holy Roman Empire dated back to the days of Charlemagne. By this time, it effectively meant Germany.
   In theory, all the Kings of Western Europe were subject to election, but by this time England, France and Spain were developing into centralized hereditary monarchies supported by embryonic bureaucratic governing structures. In Germany, by contrast, election was still very much a reality, and the 300-odd little territories (a mish-mash of princely states, bishoprics and free cities) into which the land was divided, jealously guarded their independence against the claims of any Emperor. Just seven Electors chose the Emperor; one of their number being Luther’s prince, Frederick the Wise of Saxony.
   The election of Charles was by no means guaranteed, especially when Francis I of France decided to throw his hat into the ring. (Henry VIII considered intervening, but wisely decided not to proceed). After enormous sums, all borrowed at crippling rates, were expended in bribes, Charles was duly elected Emperor in 1521. But Luther was just one of many problems with which he would have to deal.
The Pope at this time was Leo X, from the great Florentine family of the Medicis. Destined for high office in the church since childhood, he had become a cardinal at the age of just 16, and then Pope at 37. His attitude to his duties was, “God has given us the Papacy: let us enjoy it”. He lived a spectacularly luxurious lifestyle, and was a lover of the fine arts. In the same year as Luther’s gesture at Wittenberg, Leo survived a plot to poison him, following which the suspects (who included a cardinal) were tortured and publicly executed. At first he treated the disputes in Germany as a remote and uninteresting squabble between monks, and did not get around to issuing his Bull excommunicating Luther until it was too late. Then in 1521 Leo died, aged only 46.
   Charles decided, with some justice, that the church was in dire need of reform, and the man he selected to do the job was his old tutor, Adrian of Utrecht, a Dutchman in his sixties, who was now installed as Pope Adrian VI. When this austere old man arrived in Rome the cardinals were horrified by his attempts to curb their lavish lifestyles. Adrian knew nothing of the complexities of Vatican politics, all his attempts at reform were obstructed, and the French were intent on stirring up trouble in Italy. After just two years the unfortunate Adrian died (of a broken heart, it was said), and it was with sighs of relief that the cardinals turned to another member of the Medici clan to return things to normal. But the new pontiff, Clement VII, was to prove one of the most disastrous Popes of all time.              

In 1521 Charles summoned Luther to appear before a meeting of the German Parliament (the Diet) in a city on the Rhineland: the memorably-named Diet of Worms. There Luther was asked to justify his beliefs, but he refused to recant, and was duly condemned for heresy. Previous would-be reformers had been burnt at the stake for this, but Charles had promised Luther a safe-conduct, and the young Emperor clearly thought his personal honour was involved. So he let him go.
   Luther was taken by his supporters to safety in the castle of Wartburg, where he spent the next year translating the Bible into German. Luther’s writings came to form the standard German language, and thanks to the recently-invented printing press, they were rapidly dissembled all over Europe. The Protestant Reformation was now under way. New reformers appeared, such as Zwingli in Zurich. More alarmingly for the princes, a massive peasant revolt broke out in Germany in 1524, inspired by a charismatic preacher called Thomas Muntzer. Luther showed where his loyalties now lay by calling on the nobles to crush the peasants, and many thousands were duly slaughtered. In the 19th century, Engels hailed Muntzer as a proto-communist.

Charles had simply too much on his plate to deal with this, for he was now engaged in a major war with the French for the control of the great city of Milan. In 1525 the Imperial forces, which consisted mostly of Spanish troops and German mercenaries, destroyed the French at the battle of Pavia, capturing King Francis himself. But things now got out of control, as the hungry and leaderless Imperial army (Charles being in Spain) marched on Rome itself, where Pope Clement had been conducting a futile and irresolute attempt to play the French and the Imperialists off against each other. In 1527 the Imperial army stormed Rome and sacked the city, amidst appalling scenes of slaughter and plunder. Pope Clement barely escaped with his life. There were many Lutherans amongst the German mercenaries, who raped nuns and conducted obscene parodies of the Mass in the churches. An unknown soldier hacked the name of Martin Luther into the base of Michelangelo’s statue of the Virgin Mary.

The greatest threat, however, was in the east. The power and wealth of Charles and Francis were but little when compared with the Ottoman Sultan, Suleiman the Magnificent. The Turks had taken Constantinople two generations before, and made it the capital of their empire, which now stretched through the Balkans, down through Syria and Palestine, and across Egypt and the north African coast. In 1526 Suleiman struck north, and destroyed the Hungarian kingdom at the battle of Mohacs. King Louis of Hungary, who was Charles’s brother-in-law, was drowned in a river as he fled the battlefield.
   Three years later, Suleiman struck again, seizing Budapest and advancing up the Danube to the gates of Vienna itself. Fortunately for central Europe, it was too late in the campaigning season for a full-scale siege of the city, and the Turkish forces soon retreated; but the threat remained all-too-real for the next century. King Francis had no compunction in allying France with the Moslem Turks against his fellow-Catholic monarch, and Henry VIII of England was a diplomatic “wild card”, especially after his breach with Rome in the 1530s.

With all these international troubles, it is hardly surprising that Charles was unable to crush Protestantism in Germany, but was forced to accept, at least as a temporary expedient, a compromise whereby the individual princes were able to choose which church they wished their subjects to follow. In 1556 he decided he had had enough, and he abdicated. His vast domains were divided: Spain, Italy and the Netherlands went to his son, Philip, and the Empire to his brother Ferdinand, who also claimed the throne of what was left of Hungary. He must have died a disappointed man. Never again would any western European monarch rule such an enormous area. And Protestantism, though under severe threat for the next century, survived.

  There is a famous remark attributed to Charles (though in a number of slightly different forms) that he “spoke French to his friends, Spanish to his priests, Italian to his mistress and German to his horse”!

Tuesday, 30 May 2017

Taleban bans cricket!

The Afghanistan cricket team has made an impressive impact recently, including a memorable victory over the West Indies in the World 20/20 Cup, but we are now informed by the "Times" that a resurgent Taleban has banned the sport, along with other games.
   A tribal elder explained, "The Taliban said the three sticks [the stumps] behind the player represent Allah. Throwing the ball at them means you hate Allah. So stop playing. 
  "Some villagers refused. They said, "Afghan players have raised the national flag all over the world. We will play". But then the Taliban started shooting, and some youngsters got wounded".

It strikes me that this reasoning provides an excellent excuse for anyone who wants to get out of school cricket. After all, children from a Christian background can argue that the three stumps represent the Holy Trinity. This would be just as valid.
   I wonder if anyone will try it?

Wednesday, 10 May 2017

Shropshire in the Civil War

On August 22nd 1642 the English Civil War officially began when King Charles I raised his standard in Nottingham and attempted to rally support. In early September, threatened by The Earl of Essex’s army in Northamptonshire, he decided to link up with Royalists in Wales and the borders, so he marched westwards into Shropshire. He reached Wellington on September 19th and issued his manifesto, calling for a “free Parliament” and the rule of law; entering Shrewsbury the next day.
   The Civil War is popularly seen as either a class struggle or a contest between the King and Parliament. The first is no longer much regarded by historians, and the latter requires an investigation of why the King was unable to gain a majority of the M.P.s, who were overwhelming drawn from the landowning gentry. In fact the 12 M.P.s representing Shropshire (two for the County, and two each for the boroughs of Shrewsbury, Ludlow, Bridgnorth, Wenlock and Bishop’s Castle) were divided: 8 for the King and 4 for Parliament. Ludlow and Bridgnorth were strongly royalist, but Richard More, M.P. for Bishop’s Castle, was a dedicated Puritan. The county sheriff was a royalist; the Lord-Lieutenant, the Earl of Bridgwater, attempted to remain neutral, and Parliament replaced him with Lord Littleton, who promptly defected to the King. One major landowner, Edward Herbert, a lukewarm royalist, retired to his power-base over the border in Montgomery. Other landowning families gave their support to one side or the other, and some changed sides.
   King Charles did not remain in Shrewsbury for long before leading his army eastwards for the indecisive battle of Edgehill on October 23rd. But the town remained in royalist control for the moment.

The Civil War in Shropshire really began in September 1643 when the town of Wem, north of Shrewsbury, was taken and fortified by Parliamentary forces under Sir William Brereton. They successfully repelled an attack by royalists led by Lord Capel, who was without military experience and proved an inept commander. There followed a whole series of small local battles and skirmishes, often for control of a single village or manor-house. It was rare for any army to number more than a couple of thousand men. Both sides tried to recruit volunteers, but there were also conscriptions, and men who deserted and changed sides were liable to execution. Horses were seized from farms, money and goods confiscated from those deemed to be “disaffected”, and there was much looting, masquerading as demands for “free billeting”. Not surprisingly, many areas saw the emergence of “clubmen”; villagers intent on defending their homes and property against soldiers of either side.

Prince Rupert, the glamorous cavalry commander, arrived in Shrewsbury in February 1644 to make the town his base, but then led his army into Yorkshire, where he was decisively defeated at Marston Moor in July. The royalist position in Shropshire never fully recovered from this, for while he was away Parliamentary forces under the Earl of Denbigh scored a decisive victory in Montgomery and then moved to relieve Wem and take Oswestry.
   In February 1645 Rupert’s brother Prince Maurice took command in Shropshire, but was called away to Chester, leaving Shrewsbury open to attack. The town fell to a surprise night attack by Colonel Myttton’s Parliamentary forces a week later. Thirteen Irish soldiers in the King’s service were then hanged, to the disgust of many on both sides. The same year witnessed the destruction of the King’s army by Fairfax and Cromwell at Naseby, and the Civil War in Shropshire came to an end with the fall, after the siege and bombardment, of Ludlow and Bridgnorth in April 1646.

Shropshire was thus never witnessed any major battles, but was the scene of many smaller engagements, by local forces commanded by local gentry. In this way it was similar to many other counties where loyalties were divided.

   There is a detailed survey of Shropshire in the Civil War in “To Settle the Crown”, by Jonathon Worton. 

Sunday, 30 April 2017

Rousseau on General Elections

"The English people believes itself to be free; it is gravely mistaken; it is free only during the election of Members of Parliament; as soon as the Members are elected, the people is enslaved; it is nothing. In the brief moments of its freedom, the English people makes such use of that freedom that it deserves to lose it". 

(Rousseau: "The Social Contract) 

Sunday, 16 April 2017

Lenin Returns to Russia; April 1917

The downfall of the Tsar in the “February Revolution” of 1917 caught Lenin entirely by surprise. He had not set foot in Russia for more than a decade, and his Bolshevik Party had played no part in recent events. Just a few weeks earlier, he had said publicly that he did not expect to see revolution in his lifetime.
   As soon as he heard of the revolution, Lenin was desperate to return to Russia. But how? He was living in exile in Zurich, surrounded by warring states: France and Italy, allied with Russia, opposing the German and Austrian empires. The intelligence services of all these countries would have known Lenin as an intransigent revolutionary who was intending to stir up trouble. The new Provisional Government in Russia had pledged to continue the war, but Lenin had opposed participation in the war from the very start. There was no way that the Entente powers; Britain, France and Italy; would want him to return to Russia.
   Germany was a different matter, and Lenin had a contact there: a left-wing socialist who was now helping the German government. He was Dr. Alexander Helphand, a Belarussian Jew better known by his revolutionary pseudonym of Parvus. He was now making vast sums as a war profiteer and was helping to spread defeatist propaganda in Russia. He pointed out to the authorities in Berlin that Lenin, especially if helped with substantial German funds, could do serious damage to the Russian war effort. A Swiss socialist, Fritz Platten, negotiated an agreement with the German minister for the transporting of Lenin to Russia.
   So on April 9th Lenin, accompanied by his wife Nadezhda Krupskaya, his friends Zinoviev, Sokholnikov and Radek, and more than thirty others, including some children, boarded the famous “sealed train” (technically an “extra-territorial entity”) and were taken across Germany, by ship to Sweden, and thence to Finland (officially part of the Russian Empire, but now starting to assert its independence), to arrive at the Finland Station in Petrograd a week later, after numerous frustrating holdups on the way. Without the friends and contacts of Parvus to make the arrangements, Lenin's party would never have completed their journey.
   Lenin’s agreement with the Germans soon became known, and led to accusations that he was a traitor and a German agent, receiving vast amounts of “German gold” However, it should be stressed that Lenin’s ambitions were not limited to revolution in Russia. He believed throughout that a Russian revolution would be no more than a spark that would set off a world-wide conflagration, and he always placed particular hopes on revolution in Germany itself.

Lenin’s Bolshevik Party had no fewer than 50,000 members in Russia when he returned. This small number was due to deliberate policy on his part. He had insisted on limiting party membership to dedicated and disciplined revolutionaries rather than mere sympathisers, and had broken with Julius Martov, the Menshevik Socialist leader, on this very issue. But unlike most socialists in spring 1917, Lenin was clear what he wanted. Whereas they, seeing little appetite or need for further revolution, were satisfied with a rather vague liberalism, freeing political prisoners, ending press censorship, and proclaiming Russia now “the freest country in the world”, Lenin had set out his ideas some years earlier in his most important book, “What Is To Be Done?” Left to themselves, he argued, the proletariat would never see the need for a full communist revolution. The role of the party, therefore, was to be a “vanguard”; leading and directing the workers towards revolution. He always despised and detested “bourgeois liberalism”.
   But in Lenin’s absence, the party leaders in Petrograd were uncertain what course to take. The first on the scene was a young man of aristocratic background, named Scriabin, who was to become much better known under his pseudonym, Molotov. Stalin arrived from Siberian exile soon afterwards; and for the rest of his life was forced to play down the embarrassing fact that under his direction the first legal issues of “Pravda” advocated co-operation with the Provisional Government.    

Returning political exiles, like the veterans Plekhanov and Vera Zasulich, were given rapturous receptions on their arrival, and the same enthusiasm greeted Lenin when he alighted at the Finland station in Petrograd. It was nearly midnight on April 3rd in the antiquated Russian calendar (thirteen day behind the Gregorian calendar used in western Europe). A short speech of welcome was delivered by Chheidze, a moderate socialist representing the Petrograd Soviet. But Lenin, to general amazement and some discontent, climbed on an armoured car and called for further revolution, denouncing all compromise. Lenin then spent the night addressing Bolshevik party workers.
The next day Lenin delivered two speeches, setting out what came to be called his “April Theses”. These were summarized in a series of powerful slogans: Down with the capitalist ministers! All power to the Soviets! End the war! Give the land to the peasants! Even some in his own party were alarmed at this extremism.
   The Bolsheviks were only in a minority in the Soviet, and had very few members outside of a few large cities. In normal times Lenin’s revolutionary call would have made little progress. But in Russia in 1917 times were not normal. The main destabilising factor was the war. Over the next few months, the Germans continued to advance and the Russian army disintegrated. Anarchy spread through the countryside as the peasants murdered their landlords and stopped sending food to the cities. The economy spiralled downwards out of control, and the Provisional Government had no means of enforcing its will. This was the situation which Lenin and the Bolsheviks were able to turn to their advantage.

Image result for lenin-at-finland-station
Lenin at the Finland Station: sculpture by Sergei Yevseyev, 1926

Of those who travelled with Lenin on the “sealed train”, Zinoviev and his wife were shot under Stalin, and Radek, Sokholnikov and the Swiss socialist Platten died in the concentration camps. Lenin’s widow Nadezhda survived till 1939, but was bullied and blackmailed into silence. Parvus settled in Germany, where he died in 1924, but not before he had been denounced as a “betrayer of the working class”. Lenin himself was disabled by a stroke in 1922 and died two years later without recovering his health.   

  A recently-published book, “Lenin on the Train”, by Catherine Merridale, provides many fascinating minor details about Lenin’s journey. Among the exiles living in Zurich was James Joyce, who commented that the Germans “must be pretty desperate” to start negotiating with Lenin. Lenin himself, desperate to escape from Switzerland, even telephoned the American embassy in Bern to ask for assistance; but since it was Easter Day there was only a single young official on duty there, who told Lenin to ring back later. The young official was Allen Dulles, later to become head of the C.I.A. He never forgot the incident. 

Monday, 10 April 2017

The House of Lords and the 1911 Parliament Act; Part Two

(The first part of this essay described how the Liberal government elected in 1906 was frustrated in its reforming efforts by the Conservative majority in the House of Lords, culminating in the rejection of Lloyd George’s Budget in 1909. The Prime Minister, Asquith, then called a general election in early 1910 on the theme of “Who runs Britain: peers or people?” only to find his part lose many seats and end up equal with the Conservatives. If the Liberals wished to continue in office, they would henceforth be dependent on the support of the Irish Nationalist party, and the price for that support would be Home Rule for Ireland)  

Asquith now produced three Commons Resolutions on reducing the power of the Lords, which were to be embodied in a Parliament Bill. These were, in summary: The Lords were to have no control over Money Bills; If any Bill passed the Commons in three successive sessions, it would automatically pass the Lords without a vote; and General Elections were to be called every 5 years, instead of 7, as was previously the case (thus giving the electorate the final say in most cases). This package duly passed the Commons with a majority of about 100, the Conservative party voting against.
   In April the House of Lords passed the Budget without a division. But what if the Lords rejected the Parliament Bill? There was a precedent for such a crisis back in 1832, when the Lords refused to pass the Great Reform Act, and had to be bullied into submission by King William IV threatening to create fifty new government-supporting peers to vote the measure through. Would the monarch once again be placed at the forefront of politics? It would be a development all responsible politicians were anxious to avoid.
   King Edward VII died on May 10th 1910 (“Killed by Asquith!” cried the more extreme Tory backwoodsmen). The new King, George V, aged 44, was eager to prevent a crisis, and called a “Constitutional Conference” in June, which however broke up without achieving anything. Lloyd George suggested that instead of a fully hereditary House of Lords, peers should elect some of their own number. The Conservative Party leaders were prepared to consider this, but the backwoodsmen were irrevocably hostile.
   When the Parliament Bill passed the Commons but was defeated in the Lords, the King demanded a new General Election to gauge the country’s mood. This was held in November, and once again resulted in a hung Parliament, with the two main parties equal in strength and the Irish holding the balance. King George now gave his tacit support to Asquith’s government, letting it be known privately that if necessary he would create as many peers as were needed to enable the Bill to pass. Historians later found that a provisional list of 250 new Liberal-supporting peers was drawn up, including some very odd suggestions – Thomas Hardy, for instance. Meanwhile the humorous magazine “Punch” had fun with its own list of wildly unsuitable peerage nominations, complete with appropriately silly titles.

In February 1911 the Parliament Bill was reintroduced into the Commons, passed all its stages by mid-May and then went up to the Lords, who amended it severely. The Conservatives were now divided by a diehard movement under Lords Halsbury and Willoughby de Brooke: the two groups being known as the “Hedgers” (the more sensible party leaders, who wished to hedge on the issue) and the “Ditchers” (who vowed to die in the last ditch rather than accept Lords reform). In July the Commons rejected the Lords’ amendments, and Asquith informed Lord Lansdowne, the Conservative leader in the Lords, of the King’s promise to create new peers if necessary to pass the Bill.
   On July 24th Asquith was howled down in the Commons by a group of extremist Conservatives, led by Lord Hugh Cecil, who shouted “Traitor! Traitor!” at him until the Speaker was obliged to suspend the session.
   The final Lords debate took part in very hot weather on August 9th and 10th. After some fierce exchanges, the Bill was passed by a narrow margin: 131 – 114. “We’ve been beaten by the bishops and the rats!” exclaimed a disgusted Ditcher peeress; and indeed examination of the voting showed that 11 bishops and 29 Conservative lords had voted for the government, including some very distinguished names.
   And so a major change was written into the constitution. But probably something even greater was intended. The preamble to the Parliament Act announced that the ultimate aim was to replace the House of Lords with an elected body. That was over a hundred years ago, and from that day to this the idea has been endlessly discussed but never enacted!

 The most immediate change was the ousting of the Conservative leader, Arthur Balfour, who was considered to have been no more than half-hearted in his opposition to the Parliament Act. He was replaced by a much more intransigent figure: a Scots-Canadian called Andrew Bonar Law.
   Bonar Law was to lead his party into very dangerous waters over the next few years. A Home Rule Bill for Ireland was duly put before Parliament in 1912. Under the terms of the Parliament Act, the House of Lords could only hold it up till 1914, but the next general election was not due till 1915. No matter how many by-elections the Conservatives might win, they could never stop the Bill in the Commons, for the Liberals were supported by the 80 Irish Nationalists and the 40 MPs of the new Labour Party. Instead the Conservatives encouraged resistance from the Protestants of Ulster, who were now threatening outright rebellion to prevent Home Rule. Soon arms were being imported from Germany, with vocal support from the Conservatives. Faced with this threat, Asquith’s government seemed paralysed.
  As it happened, Home Rule passed onto the statute book at the exact time of the outbreak of the First World War, which enabled its provisions to be suspended, probably to the relief of both the main parties. But the problem of Ireland had only been postponed.

(These events have been superbly described in a classic piece of historical writing: “The Strange Death of Liberal England”, by George Dangerfield) 

Saturday, 1 April 2017

The House of Lords and the 1911 Parliament Act: Part One

(Since the relationship between the House of Commons and the House of Lords has once again surfaced, this essay, which is in two parts, outlines the great battle between the two Houses in the years before the First World War)

In early 1906 the Liberal Party under Sir Henry Campbell-Bannerman won a massive victory in the General Election. They then formed one of the great reforming governments, including such ministers as Asquith, Lloyd George, Haldane and the young Winston Churchill, who had recently defected from the Conservatives. But despite their majority in the House of Commons, which on many issues would be reinforced by the 29 members of the new Labour Party and the 80 Irish Nationalists, the Liberals were unable to get many of their proposals on the statute book, because the Conservatives (who at this time called themselves the “Unionist” party, because of their opposition to Irish Home Rule) had an equally large majority in the House of Lords. As Arthur Balfour, the party leader and former Prime Minister, put it, “The Conservatives should still control, whether in power or in opposition, the destinies of this great empire”.
   Accordingly, although the House of Lords let through the Trades Disputes Act, which secured the power of the Trades Unions, they killed various other measures, such as an Education Bill, a Licensing Bill, various Bills for land reform and a Bill to end plural voting. Tensions rose: Campbell-Bannerman produced a Commons Motion proclaiming that, “In order to give effect to the will of the people, the power of the other House to alter or to reject Bills passed by this House must be restricted by law”, which was duly passed by an enormous majority; Lloyd George dubbed the House of Lords “Mr Balfour’s poodle”, and Winston Churchill warned, “They have started the class was, and they must be careful!”

In April 1908 Campbell-Bannerman retired, and died soon afterwards. The government was reconstructed, with Asquith succeeding as Prime Minister, Lloyd George as Chancellor of the Exchequer, and Churchill receiving his first cabinet post at the age of just 35.
   In his 1909 Budget, Lloyd George had to find money for such newly-introduced items as old age pensions, child allowances and labour exchanges, plus eight new Dreadnaught battleships and army modernisation; all of which required an extra £15,000,000: the largest increase ever in peacetime. He proposed to find the money from increased death duties, higher income tax (to be raised to the extortionate level of 6 pence in the pound in modern money!), a higher-rate “supertax” on higher incomes, car licenses and a petrol tax, increased taxes on alcohol and tobacco, and a new tax on unearned profits from the sale of land. It is noticeable that most of these were targeted on the richer classes; and it is hard to avoid the suspicion that the government was deliberately provoking a showdown with the Lords. The Liberals had been performing poorly in recent by-elections, and felt the need for a new and decisive issue.

Would the House of Lords reject the Budget? They had not done so for 200 years. Even before the Lords had even discussed the Budget, Lloyd George goaded them with bellicose speeches, accusing them of caring nothing for the sufferings of the old and poor. “Who made 10,000 people owners of the soil, and the rest of us trespassers in the land of our birth?” he cried; and again, “Should five hundred men, ordinary men, chosen accidentally from among the unemployed, override the judgement of the mass of the people who are engaged in the industry which makes the wealth of this country?” If it was his intention to provoke the Lords into resistance, he succeeded; because although the more responsible Conservative leaders now urged caution, large numbers of peers who rarely attended debates (nicknamed “backwoodsmen”) now turned up in large numbers, and in November 1909 the House of Lords rejected the budget by a large majority: 350 to 75. “We’ve got them at last!” Lloyd George crowed.
   Asquith put forward a Commons motion calling the Lords’ action “A breach of the constitution and a usurpation of the rights of the Commons”, and called a general election for next January, on the general theme of “Who governs Britain: peers or the people?” But in this election the Liberals lost many seats and the Conservatives gained many, so that the two parties ended up virtually equal in the Commons. It looked very much as if the government had dug a trap for the Lords and fallen into it themselves – though in fact it was usual at the time for governments to lose general elections.

The dispute now took on a completely new tone. With the main parties evenly balanced, the 80 M.P.s of John Redmond’s Irish Nationalist Party now held the balance of power, and it was obvious to all what price they would demand for keeping Asquith’s Liberals in office. The price would be Home Rule for Ireland.

Home Rule had been forgotten about for the past fifteen years.

Gladstone, the great Liberal leader of the 19th century, had been converted to the cause of Home Rule in the 1880s, and had produced two Home Rule Bills, in 1886 and 1893. The first had split his party and been defeated in the Commons, with “Liberal Unionists” under Joseph Chamberlain and the Duke of Devonshire leaving the party to merge with the Conservatives (who in consequence renamed themselves the Unionist Party). The second had passed the Commons but had been resoundingly rejected by the House of Lords. It was plain that the Lords would never consent to Home Rule; regardless of how the Commons voted.
   It is important to understand what was meant by Home Rule. Nobody except a handful of extremist republicans envisaged a fully independent Ireland. Redmond’s Irish Nationalists were moderates: what they demanded was no more than a measure of devolution, of the kind now enjoyed by Scotland. But of the 100 Irish seats in Parliament they controlled about 80, with such a stranglehold that in many cases their candidates were returned unopposed. Only Protestant Ulster held out against their dominance. It would have been sensible for the Conservatives to reassure Ulster that Home Rule would be no big deal, and would not threaten them in any way, but Conservative hatred of the Liberals was such that, in a move whose fatal consequences have haunted us ever since, they decided instead to fan the flames of Ulster intransigence. The famous slogan, “Home Rule means Rome Rule”, was coined: a devolved Ireland would be dominated by the Catholic Church, and Protestant Ulster would be persecuted. The moribund Orange Order was resurrected to combat Home Rule, by force if necessary.

In 1910 the Conservatives and the Ulster Protestants were still irrevocably opposed to Home Rule. But if the government now passed major constitutional legislation to reduce the power of the House of Lords to veto legislation, it looked as if Home Rule could no longer be prevented. What would happen then?

(To be continued)

Saturday, 25 March 2017

Noam Chomsky

My attention has been drawn to a recent review of Noam Chomsky's book, "Media Control: The Spectacular Achievements of Propaganda". 
   Chomsky is a world-renowned expert in the nature and origins of language, but for several decades now he has been writing books denouncing American foreign policy. This particular volume, written more than twenty years ago, is in essence an anti-Plato tract. By this I mean that he attacks the ideas put forward in Plato's famous book, "The Republic", which advocates that government should be entrusted to a specially-trained elite class of "Guardians" rather than left in the hands of the fickle forces of democracy.  
    Chomsky sees the USA and other self-styled "democracies" as under the control of a  class which he calles the "specialists", ruling over the masses, who are called "the bewildered herd". However, unlike Plato's Guardians, who were trained from childhood to use their power solely for the public benefit, Chomsky sees the rule of his "specialists" as being illegitimate; running the country entirely for their own benefit whilst keeping up a mere facade of democracy, and misleading the public mendacious propaganda. He gives various examples of how this is achieved.
   But such a clear dichotomy between "specialists" and the "bewildered herd" is of course absurd. In all western countries there is a large intervening class of educated and intelligent people who do not fall into either category, and are well capable of seeing through blatant propaganda. This number must, of course, include Chomsky himself.

When I read the review, it immediately struck me how out-of-date Chomsky's argument is. The reviewer makes a valiant attempt to tie it into today's world of Brexit and Donald Trump, but wholly in vain. The argument simply has no bearing on a situation where, in America, Donald Trump was elected President after insulting all the leading members of his own party, and is now at war with the "New York Times" and the leading news media, and where in Britain a majority of the people voted for Brexit against the wishes and advice of most MPs, most members of the House of Lords, all living former Prime Ministers, the leaders of all the traditional political parties, a majority of university graduates and the "Times" newspaper. Since the, we have seen senior judges denounced as "Enemies of the people" by the Brexiteer tabloids, to the fury of the legal profession, and Brexiteer Tories complaining that top civil servants are undermining their negotiations. If these people aren't part of the "specialists", then who is? Now Donald Trump has, without a shred of evidence, even accused the FBI of colluding with MI5 to tap his phone!

The reviewer would have done better to portray these events as something truly revolutionary: an uprising of the "bewildered herd" against the "specialists"; the like of which we had not previously seen in the West, and whose consequences we cannot yet foresee. As was said by Michael Gove (a man who rose from a humble background to become a cabinet minister, thereby joining the "specialists"), "The public has had enough of experts". 

Tuesday, 14 March 2017

History: The End of Tsarism

On this day, March 15th, one hundred years ago, Tsar Nicholas II abdicated. This followed several weeks in which the capital, Petrograd, had slid towards anarchy. The war was not going well, and food supplies to the city had broken down, leading to shortages and severe price inflation. This in turn had led to strikes and demonstrations, which had soon turned violent. Most alarming of all, sections of the Petrograd garrison refused to supress the rioters, but instead joined the crowds on the streets. Police stations were attacked, and armed police who fired on rioters from the rooftops were lynched. Meanwhile the Tsar was away at the Front, and did not realise the seriousness of the situation until it was far too late. His only action was to suspend the Duma, the Russian Parliament, which at this stage was dominated by conservatives and moderate liberals, with hardly any left-wing representation. But the Duma refused to disperse. There were demands that the Tsar should go. Finally Nicholas, finding that he was supported by nobody, not even his generals, tamely surrendered and abdicated.
   Nicholas offered the crown to his brother, Grand Duke Michael; but Michael, feeling his accession would lack legitimacy unless he was recognised by the Duma, rejected the crown. After four centuries, Tsarism ceased to exist.

Into the gap left by the end of Tsarism stepped two different bodies. The Duma proclaimed a “Provisional Government”, headed by a liberal nobleman, Prince Lvov, with a radical lawyer, Alexander Kerensky, as its dominant personality. The second body was the “Soviet (that is, council) of Workers’ and Soldiers’ Deputies”, which arose spontaneously in the city, and to which increasingly the masses looked for leadership. For the moment, the Soviet was dominated by moderate Socialists who were prepared to co-operate with the Provisional Government.
   There was general rejoicing, both in Russia and amongst her allies, as the Provisional Government freed all political prisoners, ended press censorship and announced future elections for a Constituent Assembly. The main reason this amity and optimism did not last was that the decision was also taken to keep Russia in the war. Over the next few months the army disintegrated and German forces advanced further into Russia. The food supply to Petrograd became ever worse as anarchy spread throughout the Russian countryside. Violence in the streets increased. The path was set for the Bolshevik seizure of power in the autumn.
   The Bolshevik Party had played no part in the fall of the Tsar. Lenin was in Switzerland (and was caught entirely by surprise by the fall of the Tsar), Trotsky was in New York and Stalin in exile in a remote part of Siberia. They now all returned to Petrograd and worked to seize control of events.   

These events are known as the “February Revolution”. In fact most of them took place in March under our calendar, but at the time Russia still followed the antiquated “Julian” calendar, thirteen days behind the West. Historians deal with this problem by indicating that the dates they cite are “Old Style” (O.S.) or “New Style” (N.S.) The date of March 15th, given above, is N.S. 

An American cartoon of the fall of the Tsar. Note the whip Nicholas is holding. It is labelled "German Influence", reflecting a widespread (but incorrect) belief that Nicholas's German-born Empress, Alexandria, was pro-German, and their friend Rasputin might have been a German agent.

Tuesday, 7 March 2017

Unexpected Kings

There are several well-known monarchs whom I'm calling "unexpected kings"; the reason being that they had elder brothers. Only the death of the sibling suddenly elevated them to the status of heir to the throne.

Richard I of England, the great crusading warrior nicknamed Richard the Lion-Heart, was only the second son of Henry II. Until Richard was 26 the heir was his elder brother Henry, who was given the title of "The Young King". Henry, Richard and their younger brothers Geoffrey and John all rose in concerted rebellion against their father; but then young Henry died childless in 1183, leaving Richard to succeed to the throne in 1189.
   Richard himself was childless when he was killed in battle in 1199. The next brother, Geoffrey, Duke of Brittany, was already dead, and by modern rules the heir to the throne should have been Geoffrey's 12-year-old son, Arthur; but rules of strict hereditary did not yet apply, and rather than run the risks involved in having a child as king, John, the youngest of the four brothers, was given the crown. Arthur was taken prisoner, and John apparently had him murdered in 1203. John is remembered as one of England's worst Kings, but would he have become King if Richard had lived a few years longer, until Arthur became an adult?

We might consider the case of Edward II (reigned 1307-27), another spectacularly incompetent King. He he was only a few months old when his elder brother Alfonzo died from unknown causes in 1284. Very few English people realize that they might have had a King Alfonzo!

A much more famous case is that of Henry VIII. He was born in 1491; five years after his brother, Prince Arthur. At the age of just 15 Arthur was given a diplomatically-important marriage to the equally young Katherine of Aragon, the daughter of Ferdinand and Isabella, the King and Queen of Spain. Arthur died a few months later, and when Henry VIII succeeded to the throne in 1509 he decided to marry Katherine himself. This had enormous consequences for the history of England, because marriage to a deceased brother's widow appeared to be forbidden in the Bible (the book of Leviticus). Henry therefore had to seek permission of the Pope for his wedding to take place. This was duly given, but when after 20 years Katherine had failed to give him a son and heir, Henry became convinced that his marriage was cursed, and sought to end it (tecnhically by annulment, not divorce). Unfortunately at this point European politics intervened, for in 1527 Rome fell to the forces of the Emperor Charles V, and the Pope (Clement VII) was a virtual prisoner of the Emperor. As it happened, Katherine was the Emperor's aunt, and there was no way Charles would permit this tremendous insult to his family; so the only solution Henry could find to his dilemma was to separate the English church from Rome and end the marriage by his own authority. 

English Kings had been murdered or killed in battle, but the unfortunate Charles I was the only one ever to be sentenced to death and executed. But until he was 12 years old he had an elder brother, the popular Henry, Prince of Wales, who died at the age of 17. Would the English civil war have happened if Henry had become King instead of Charles?

More recently, as a young man George V was not expected to become King, because the eldest son of the future King Edward VII was the Duke of Clarence, Prince Albert Victor, commonly known as Prince Eddy. He was a dissolute young man; he was rumoured to be a regular visitor to a discreet homosexual brothel staffed by working-class teenage rent-boys, and has even been suspected of being Jack the Ripper! It was thought that the only hope was to find him a strong-minded and sensible wife, and a German princess, Mary of Teck, was selected for the job. But in 1892, before the marriage could take place, and doubtless to everyone's secret relief, Prince Eddy died of pneumonia at the age of 28, leaving his brother George as heir. It was tactfully discovered that Mary's affections were transferred to George, and the pair were duly married the next year. As King (1910-36) George V faced several serious crises, but always behaved with the strictest constitutional propiety, and the monarchy survived and prospered. Quite probably Prince Eddy would have done far worse.

King Louis VII of France (reigned 1137-80) was originally intended for the Church, and it would have been better if he could have stayed there. Unfortunately for France, his elder brother Philip had died as a teenager in 1131. Louis was noted for his piety, but as a warrior was an extremely inept crusader, and his main achievement as King was to divorce his wife, Eleanor of Aquitaine. She then ran off with the future Henry II of England, taking her vast holdings in south-western France into the English orbit. Louis was one of the worst of the French mediaeval kings, but fortunately for his country his son by his third wife, Philip II, "Augustus", was easily the best, and recovered the ground that his father had lost. 

Francis I of France (reigned 1515-47), a dazzling prince of the Renaissance, had trained his eldest son, Francis the Dauphin, to succeed him, but the young man died at the age of 19 in 1536, and the succession went to the younger son, who became Henry III. Henry had no more than average ability, and was killed in a tournament in 1559. His three sons succeeded him in turns as King. All were disatrous failures, as France was engulfed in a violent civil conflict known as the "Wars of religion". None succeeded in producing an heir, and the Bourbon dynasty came to an end in 1589.

When the Russian Tsar Alexander II was assassinated by a terrorist bomb in 1881 and succeeded by his son, Alexander III, it was commented that the assassins (a small anarchist-populist group knwn as "People's Will") had murdered an intelligent liberal Tsar in order to replace him with a stupid reactionary one. But until Alexander III was 20 he would not have expected to become Tsar, because it was only in 1865 that his elder brother Nicholas died unmarried. Alexander III himself died young, at the age of 49, and was succeeded by his ill-prepared son Nicholas II. Nicholas as a child had witnessed his grandfather's murder: one can only guess at the traumatic effect it must have had on him. 

There has been quite a fad in recent years of "virtual" or "alternative" history, asking whether things would have developed differently if there had been some accidental change - in the examples above; what if the elder brothers had lived? This leads to a more general debate: how much do individuals really matter in history?

Sunday, 26 February 2017


Cracow is an old city. It was the seat of a bishopric from around 1000 AD, and although it suffered in the Mongol invasion of 1241 (about which more later) it remained the capital of Poland until 1609. When the kingdom of Poland was obliterated in the partitions of the late 18th century, the city escaped the fate of being incorporated into the Russian empire, which was suffered by most of the country: instead it spent the 19th century as part of the less oppressive Austrian empire. In the second world war it was the seat of one of the most unpleasant of the Nazi leaders, Hand Frank, who headed the so-called "General Government" of occupied Poland. In recent years the city's most famous resident has been Cardinal Karol Wojtyla, who was Archbishop there from 1963 to 1978, before becoming Pope as John Paul II.
Cracow, along with Prague, has the distinction of being one of the very few major cities in central Europe to escape major damage in the Second World War, and in consequence has a wealth of splendid old buildings. I am describing just a few of them.

  The Old Quarter of the city is enclosed within what were once the fortifications, but are now a strip of parks called the Planty. In the centre is the market area, the Rynek Glowry, where we find the Cloth Hall. This dates form the 16th century, and is now full of stalls catering for the tourist trade.

The square contains the tower of the old Town Hall,
also St. Adalbert's church, the oldest in Cracow,
 and a statue of the Polish writer Adam Mickiewicz.

     Many fine buildings line the square 

The church of St. Mary is at the north-east corner.

The story goes that when in 1241 the great Mongol army (which had swept across Russia, destroying Moscow and Kiev) approached Cracow, a bugler on the tower started to blow a warning, but was killed by an arrow through his throat before he finished his call. A truncated bugle call is still sounded from the church in his memory.

I found this splendid character busking outside the church..

There are many fine churches in the centre of Cracow. This is the baroque church of Saints Peter and Paul.

South of the Old Quarter is Wawel Hill; the site of the cathedral and the royal castle.

The cathedral is dedicated to St. Stanislas, an early Bishop of Cracow, who was murdered in 1079.

In the cathedral you can see the magnificent tombs of the 16th century Kings of Poland.
and a spectacular altar dedicated to St. Stanislas himself

This is the courtyard of the Royal Castle

In a cave below the hill there lurks a fiery dragon!

Kazimierz lies to the east of Wawel Hill. It was founded as a separate town by King Kazimierz the Great in 1335. The Jewish population of Cracow was moved here in the late 15th century. The area contains several synagogues, including one named after Rabbi Moses Remu'h
The cemetery next to the synagogue was largely destroyed in the Second World War, and a wall has been constructed from fragments of the old tombstones

Kazimierz was made famous in the film "Schindler's List". Some of the old streets and courtyards are still there.

Schindler's factory is commemorated only by a small plaque, which is not easy to find, but there is a large memorial to Cracow's murdered Jews outside the town.

If you go on a package-holiday visit to Cracow, you will probably find that a day trip to Auschwitz will be included; but it will be stressed that this is voluntary, since of course many people would find it distressing. Auschwitz is an hour or so's drive from Cracow. I have written about it elsewhere on this blog. 

Sunday, 12 February 2017

Anne Bronte

Having watched the recent television play about the Bronte family, I decided to read "The Tenant of Wildfell Hall", by Anne Bronte.
   Anne was the youngest and least-known of the three Bronte sisters. She died of tuberculosis at the age of just 28, but during her tragically short life she wrote two novels; completing this, her second, shortly before her death in 1849. At the time it was considered rather shocking.
   The story is set back in the flamboyant, amoral age of George IV, twenty years before the time it was written. The "tenant" of the title is a mysterious and reclusive lady, apparently a widow, who has rented a tumbledown house in desolate moorland. It turns out she has run away from her abusive husband, and is concealing her identity for fear that he should take away their infant son, whom she has brought with her. Most of the book is her account of an unhappy marriage.
   Her husband, Mr Huntingdon, is nothing like those other memorable Bronte men, Heathcliff and Mr Rochester. Instead he is portrayed as essentially a very weak character; unable to resist the temptations of alcohol and gambling, responding with childish petulance to any setbacks, and forever criticizing his wife and shouting at the servants. Easily bored with country life, he disappears to London for weeks at a time (presumably for a dissipated life of booze, cards and women, though Anne does not tell us), or invites his dissolute friends to stay at his house, despite his wife's disapproval of them. At the same time, we can understand why he gets irritated with her, because she is very "preachy" at times: I'm not sure whether Anne intended to give this impression.
   The structure of the novel is a bit clumsy (at a crucial point of the story three important male characters all have surnames beginning with "H", which is confusing!) and the ending is too sentimental, but even so it's an impressive achievement for such a young writer. One has to wonder, though, how on earth the Bronte sisters - maidenly daughters of the parsonage - ever conceived of such remarkable male characters!

Saturday, 4 February 2017


TRUMPERY: Showy and worthless stuff, rubbish, ritual fooling. (French: Tromper; to deceive)
       (Chambers' Dictionary definition)

Friday, 27 January 2017

The Man in the Iron Mask and the Lerins Islands

The Lerins islands are a group of small islets in the Mediterranean, close to the south coast of France. There is a fortress with a fine view across the sea to Cannes. 

The famous "Man in the iron mask" was imprisoned here in the later 17th century. After a while, his guards were so fed up with having to live in this environment that they demanded to be transferred to Paris!

The prisoner did not in reality wear an iron mask, but a velvet one. Exactly who he was, and why he was imprisoned, remains a mystery. He was arrested in 1669, when he was aged about 30, by order of the Minister of War, the Marquis de Louvois, and held first of all at Pignerol (now in Piedmont), a top-security prison for major political offenders, and then at other prisons until his eventual death in the Bastille in 1703. There it was later reported that two musketeers were always on duty in his cell, to shoot him immediately if he ever removed his mask or attempted to speak about anything other than his immediate personal needs. When he died, he was buried the very next day (under the name of "Marchioly"), his clothes and furniture were burnt and the walls of his cell whitewashed. Clearly even more than thirty years after his arrest, he was considered a danger to state security. But why?

   On the arrest warrant his name was given as Eustache Dauger, a name that means nothing to historians. This only deepens the mystery, because it was stressed that he was "only a valet". At Pignerol he was allowed to act as a servant to a genuinely important detainee, the disgraced former Superintendant of Finances Nicholas Fouquet, who was imprisoned there from his fall in 1661 until his death in 1680. But if Dauger was no more than a servant, why were these extreme measures taken to conceal his identity and prevent him speaking? Presumably there was a danger someone might recognise him for who he really was, or at least be struck by his strong resemblence to someone famous and important. Alternatively, why was he not quietly killed, to save all this trouble?  

   Inevitably there have been sensational theories about his identity. The most famous stems from the great French novelist Alexandre Dumas, who suggested (in a follow-up historical novel to "The Three Musketeers") that he was the elder twin brother of Louis XIV, and should by rights have succeeded as King. A completely opposite theory is that he was Louis XIV's biological father (Louis XIII having been estranged from his wife for some time before her unexpected pregnancy) and had been attempting to blackmail the French government with this revelation. If the mysterious prisoner did in fact strongly resemble Louis XIV, it would certainly explain the mask, and the possibility that he was a close relative would explain the King's reluctance to have him killed. But we shall probably never know the truth behind the legend.

Tuesday, 17 January 2017

Harlech Castle

Harlech is one of four mighty castles (along with Beaumaris, Conwy and Caernarfon, all of which I have described in previous entries) built by Edward I in the late 13th century to secure his conquest of Wales. Like the others, Harlech was designed by his master architect and engineer, James of St. George, and cost the equivalent of many millions of pounds in today's money, but unlike the others it was built very quickly; in just seven years, between 1283 and 1290.
   This photograph, taken from a postcard, shows the immensely strong position chosen by Master James. It stands on an outcrop of rock, with the sea to the west (the direction from which this was taken). There is a moat and a low outer wall, with the only entry being from the east, where the modern town is situated.

The castle is in the form of an inner courtyard, or bailey, almost square in shape, with four massive round towers at the corners. Within the bailey were placed the great hall and other buildings.
The dominant feature of the castle is the massive gatehouse on the eastern wall. Its walls are up to 12 feet thick, and the entrance is guarded by twin cylindrical towers, between which would be several different gates and portcullises. Their impact on the visitor is impressive even today 

The gatehouse is entered by staircases from the bailey.

This is the view down on the western side. When the castle was built, these precipitous steps led down to the sea, and there would have been boats at the bottom, so in emergencies the castle could have been supplied by water. The sea has retreated since then and is now on the far side of the railway line.

The Northern wall provides a view all the way up the coast to the Lleyn peninsula, showing once again the strategic value of the site.

Harlech's defences were soon tested by the Welsh prince Madog ap Llewellyn in 1294, and proved their worth when a garrison of just 37 men successfully repelled the assault. But then over the next century the magnificent fortress was allowed to decay, and is described in cotemporary sources as "weak and ruinous". At the start of the 15th century it was besieged by Owain Glyndwr, and although he was not able to take it by storm, he eventually starved the garrison into surrender. Owain then made Harlech his headquarters in his campaign to free Wales from English rule. However, in 1409 King Henry IV sent a strong force which was able to retake Harlech. Owain managed to evade capture, but the days of his power were gone.

The stirring partiotic song, "Men of Harlech", which serves as virtually an alternative Welsh national anthem, was first published in 1830, but was probably much older. Various English translations have appeared since then, and can be heard on youtube.  

Tuesday, 10 January 2017

Playing Cards, part 4: colourful packs

I have been collecting playing cards for around fifty years. This pack, from Sweden, is one of the first I had. It shows famous Kings and Queens of Sweden, with soldiers of the appropriate era as the Jacks.

This next pack was made by Piatnik of Vienna for the anniversay of Shakespeare's birth, and features the Wars of the Roses,with the red suits as the Lancastrians and the black as the Yorkists; so we have Henry VI as King of Hearts, Henry VII as King of Diamonds, Edward IV as King of Spades and Richard III as King of Clubs, togther with their Queens and ministers or soldiers. The Jokers are executioners! The modern suits hace been ingeniously fused with the old tarot suits of Cups, Swords, Money and Clubs. 

This is another pack I bought back in thee 1960s, which features English Kings, Queens and famous people. It was produced by Piatnik: the quality of the printing is amazing!

Another very beautifully-printed pack, this one by Fournier, featuring the native peoples of North and South America.

There are many packs featuring the two World Wars. This is a French pack illustrating the armies of the Western Front in the First World War, with the Kings as generals (Foch, Hindenburg, Haig and Pershing), the Queens as nurses and the Jacks as soldiers ("Fantassins" in French)

These are from a pack called "Jacob's Bible Cards", with names given in English and Hebrew.

And to end on a light-hearted note: the Dallas Cowboys cheerleaders, with a different girl on each card! 

Nowadays a great many packs like these can be found, and they are cheap and colourful things to collect.